Students forgo fun in the sun for toil in El Salvador

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In the El Salvador community of Ciudad Romero, families of five or more often crowd into tiny, one- or two-bedroom houses made of reinforced bricks.

Their toilets are outhouses constructed with cylindrical, cement holes; their showers are made out of hanging tarps and buckets filled with dirty well-water.

Yet it isn't the physical poverty of Ciudad Romero that first comes to mind when Stanford student Jonathan Neril reminisces on a recent stay there as part of a delegation from the American Jewish World Service.

Instead it's the constant laughter of children and cooperation between neighbors — "the incredible sense of community and family that just doesn't seem to exist in much of the United States," he said.

Neril was one of 27 Jewish students from Stanford, U.C. Berkeley and UCLA who skipped the typical spring break vacation earlier this month to join AJWS and its project partner in El Salvador, La Coordinadora, in aiding communities there.

El Salvadorian communities, like Ciudad Romero, have endured unimaginable conflict over the past two decades — a 12-year civil war ending in 1992, a hurricane in 1997, huge floods in 1998, two tremendous earthquakes earlier this year and aftershocks that continue to occur.

These catastrophes ravaged El Salvador's crops and depleted its soil, flattened people's homes and brought death to their doors.

Stanford student Joanna Levitt first witnessed some of the detritus as she and other students flew into San Salvador's airport. When she looked out the airplane window, she was overwhelmed by the heavy deforestation below.

"It's so much browner and dryer than you would ever imagine Central America," said Levitt, whose interest in Latin America and Jewish commitment to social justice inspired her participation.

Levitt's next shock came as the group drove through dusty air to Ciudad Romero, about two hours away.

"There were relief camps around San Salvador, erected by the government," she said. "It was hard to take in these identical houses, which may or may not sustain the communities living in them when the rain comes."

The conditions of Ciudad Romero, named after a heroic archbishop murdered during the recent war, seem desolate but are actually better than that of most Salvadoran villages. The 1,000-person community did not suffer as much damage as some others during the recent natural disasters. Also, each home has a plot of land to farm.

"It's considered a model in terms of sustainable communities," said Levitt.

The American students and group leaders spent their nights in the homes of Ciudad Romero families, oftentimes bunking with five or more children and their parents — and sometimes joined by animals as well. Pigs, chickens, dogs and cattle meander freely along the dirt roads and occasionally through the villagers' homes.

"I woke up one morning and there was a chicken next to my bed," said Levitt with a laugh. "I said, 'Hey there, little guy.' He was just passing by."

She wasn't the only one to have a close encounter of that kind. One student returned to her host's home after a long day at work to find an egg had been laid on her pillow. Another found herself being stampeded by cattle while she was taking a shower.

During the week, students labored primarily alongside the residents of various El Salvadorian communities, including former guerillas from the war. The volunteers awoke at 6 a.m. to help demolish and rebuild unsafe homes, plant crops, and mix and fill 4,000 bags of soil for the farms.

Neril, who is studying international relations at Stanford, said it was emotionally moving to work with the former guerrillas.

"In working together we opened up in ways we otherwise wouldn't have," he said. "One man told me how he not only lost his friends during the conflict, but actually saw most of them die. This really struck a chord with me because I had just read that the United States was the largest arms supplier [for the war]."

Dorothy Richmond, the assistant rabbi of Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom in San Francisco, accompanied the students. At lunchtime, she would get together with them to lead discussions exploring the connection between tikkun olam, or repairing the world, and Jewish values as they relate to El Salvador's development issues.

"The Jewish community believes that our main responsibility lies in taking care of the Jewish community, but that doesn't mean we don't have responsibility for any other community in the world," explained Richmond, who has also been involved with AJWS summer programs for the past two years.

"It's important for Jews to go out into the world and help others," Neril added. "There's a textual basis as well as a modern call to do so."

Quoting from the Pirke Avot (Ethics of the Fathers), he said: "We are not obliged to finish the work…nor are we free to desist from it."

After the lunchtime discussions, the students would return to work until 5 p.m. Afterward, they'd spend the evening participating in activities and discussions with the Ciudad Romero community or their group.

"It was pretty tiring," admitted Levitt, "but it was also very positive. I had so much fun with our group and also the children in the community."

On Friday night, with the help of the Ciudad Romero community, the group had a Shabbat dinner and service.

"They're not Jewish, but they saw us singing and doing prayers," said Levitt. "There was a real sharing of cultures between us."

On the last day, led by a group of the children, the students hiked through a rainforest. As they settled down by the river Rio Lempa, they decided to go for a swim, splashing around with the kids for the afternoon.

So, while they didn't spend spring break partying or sunbathing in exotic locations like Cancun or the Caribbean, Levitt pointed out enthusiastically: "We still had our day at the beach."